The Function of Anxiety

Being a vulnerable, sentient human being, living on this planet, is NOT easy!! While our refined nervous system equips us to feel an astounding array of pleasure, from the most subtly nuanced beauty to the most mind-boggling ecstatic experience, it is also designed to track dangers and sound the alarm when the environment feels less than hospitable. Our built-in alarm system also has an enormous range of signals, from feeling a bit self-conscious, to full blown panic attacks and terror.

People who experience frequent & persistent anxiety or panic attacks often express that they want to “get rid of” their anxiety, that it’s ruining their life. (And that is a reasonable desire when it’s running wild.)  But anxiety, itself, is a normal, healthy function of the nervous system. Being able to notice the slightest hint of approaching danger is a great survival advantage. It gives us the most time to either negotiate, get away, prepare to defend ourselves, hide or “play dead”. And if the situation warrants it, the nervous system will kick into higher gear with either a fight, flight, or freeze response.

We need to be able to count on our alert system to go off when we need it to, and quiet when the threat is over.  Knowing it’s there and functioning well is what frees up our attention to play, learn, create and connect with ourselves, and others.

When The Anxious Response Becomes Dysfunctional

Chronic Anxiety & hypervigilance

Unfortunately, the normal regulation of anxiety can sometimes be thrown off for any number of good reasons. As a result, the brain over-shoots, and begins to anticipate or perceive high level threat where, quite often, there is little or none. When this happens, the constant alarm gets in the way of everyday functioning. A chronically activated nervous system can cause enraged outbursts (fight), the need to suddenly leave social situations or avoidance of them altogether (flight), and immobility or apathy (freeze). This interrupts connecting with others, and the world, and causes immeasurable amounts of inner pain and shame. Not to mention the loss of opportunity for meaningful self-expression, fulfillment and joy. Most often those experiencing chronic anxiety are also experiencing sleep problems and some level of depression.

It is imperative, for quality of life, to interrupt chronic anxiety or hypervigilance and soothe the nervous system back into its non-alerted state when high level threat is not present.

Irritability and Bursts of Anger

It is exhausting to the nervous system, and other tissues of the body, to be constantly hypervigilant and anxious. When a person is perpetually on edge, it takes very little to push them “over the edge.” The push might send them into a tearful “meltdown” or a sudden fury or rage. Some Highly Sensitive people can surprise and scare themselves with the intensity of frustration, irritability and anger that they hold. They often agonizingly understand what it means to have something get on their “last nerve” and the bitter rage that can spew forth when it does. HSPs who struggle with anger usually are then also saddled heavily with guilt. It is a painful cycle.

What Can be Done?

At Self-Awareness Counseling soothing the nervous system is approached from the“inside-out” and the “outside-in” .  We work from the inside-out by healing old deep-seated inner fears, beliefs and wounding experiences, and working with the roots of avoidance and procrastination issues. The Internal Family Systems approach allows us to target the origins of these habitual patterns and feelings. These inner issues are often the source of current anxiety. The work also includes tailoring common anxiety-management tools to fit your needs, so that you can effectively interrupt the anxiety before it escalates.  We work from the outside-in by addressing issues in decision-making, relationships, lifestyle, environment, and any other blocks to getting things done. This can help you experience more effectiveness in your life, making your world more secure, which reduces anxiety.

The work is thorough and progresses at a pace that the individual can safely integrate. This is especially important for those with a traumatic past and/or who are Highly Sensitive People. For these individuals change, even if positive, is stressful. So the work always progresses carefully to make sure the client’s nervous system isn’t overloaded by the treatment process itself.

Below is a list of possible anxious experiences–yours may be different. Part of the work we do may be helping you learn to read your own system’s signals of mounting concern. This enables you to learn to effectively intervene and take care of yourself. When you can learn to hear your own inner alerts, your system won’t have to “scream” so loudly (panic!) to get your attention and care.

Range of Anxious Response

As mentioned before, the range and intensity of alarm the nervous system can produce is vast, and people experience different levels of anxiety as well as differing physical sensations depending on the level of concern and perception of danger they are experiencing. What follows are four general categories of some common types of anxious response. You may find your experience matches a category exactly, or that you experience some blend of symptoms. This list is far from exhaustive however, so your body may alert you in its own way. At Self-Awareness Counseling we will work with your ability to notice your particular way of registering concern so that you can learn to listen early to your distress and intervene with self-care tools so that your system doesn’t have to scream so loudly (i.e. panic!) to get your attention.

Generalized Anxiety that can mount to Panic

People suffering with generalized anxiety might feel mildly anxious most of the time, worrying about a wide variety of things. When extremely overwhelmed, or when faced with many unknowns, the anxiety may build into panic. They often feel tension in their chest, shoulders, neck, head and jaw. Breathing may feel somewhat labored and shallow. When escalating to panic there may be a prickling sensation under the skin. They might habitually worry about every detail of a project or perseverate about what others might be thinking. They may also experience frequent fear of death, or “existential anxiety”. For people with chronic anxiety, these feelings and thoughts can become a normal state of existence. They may approach the world expecting things to go wrong, or for everyday encounters to be challenging or uncomfortable. People who have had long-standing high levels of general anxiety and stress can be at risk for developing a panic disorder (frequent panic attacks).

Social Anxiety

Another group of people, suffering with social anxiety might only feel nervous or panicked when their performance is being evaluated by others. It comes on when speaking to or working in a group, meeting new people, presenting in front of an audience, or taking an exam. They might become nauseous, vomit, or suddenly need to use the bathroom before a performance or speech. They also might be prone to “going blank” in front of an audience or an intimidating individual. Because their fight, flight or freeze response was so activated, they might finish the interaction and not remember anything about what they said or did.

Panic Disorder

People who experience panic disorder typically fall into two groups. One group is all too familiar with generalized or social anxiety. They experience panic disorder when their generally anxious state starts to regularly mount to the terrifying level of a panic attack. The other group is comprised of people who typically don’t think of themselves as being particularly anxious but suddenly experience panic attacks that seem to “come out of the blue”. Often, they think they are having a heart attack because the response is so sudden and severe that it causes chest pain, heart palpitations and shortness of breath. For both groups, because the panic attacks seemed uncontrollable or unpredictable, they are at risk of developing a paralyzing fear of having another panic attack, especially in public.

Post-Traumatic Stress

A fourth group are those who have experienced physical, emotional, sexual or psychological trauma–either a single event or prolonged, repetitive trauma. The chronic anxiety symptoms arising may include feelings of being disconnected from your body, hypervigilance (always looking around for danger, never feeling safe) and flashbacks, intrusive memories & thoughts or nightmares. Depending on the severity and duration of these symptoms, and the origins of the trauma, this type of anxious response may be diagnosed as Acute Traumatic Stress, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder  (PTSD), or Complex (or Chronic) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD).

For More Information:

Click on the images below  (or on the right), or see the pages under the “Specializations” and “About Counseling” menus.

Back to Top ~